The Almanack took place in 1752 against a backdrop of the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and the ‘lost days’ this led to. The Prophet is set a year later and change, and how the fear of this can be exploited, is once again a key theme.
Land enclosure, although not yet legal, is rearing its head and threatening rural traditions and the push towards a society with its beliefs grounded in science rather than reliant on superstition continues its march. The deep-rooted customs of the countryside are under attack but – as we would expect from a writer whose work is so bound up with love of the land as Martine Bailey – the countryside is fighting back.
In The Prophet, Tabitha Hart, the delightfully unconventional heroine of The Almanack, has swapped her scandalous life in London for the outwardly more respectable position of a nobleman’s wife. She is pregnant with her first child and is suddenly the mistress of a huge estate and a group of servants she is not fully equipped to deal with.
Despite her new status, Tabitha, however, is still Tabitha with the same nose for a mystery, the same exuberance, and the same undimmed appreciation for the rituals and superstitions she was brought up to respect.
When a young girl with links to Tabitha’s past is murdered beneath an ancient oak tree on the family’s estate, it is therefore no surprise that Tabitha vows to find the killer. This decision brings her into contact with the enigmatic, and very dangerous, itinerant preacher Baptist Gunn – the prophet of the title. Gunn has convinced his followers that a second messiah will be born close to the oak tree and close to Midsummer’s Day, which is Tabitha’s due date. The stage is set for a conflict which will test Tabitha’s strength to its limits.
I am a huge fan of Bailey’s books and this one didn’t disappoint. Her descriptions are as lushly evocative as ever, with all the nods to Thomas Hardy I enjoyed in The Almanack. Her characters are rounded and all deserve their place in the storyline. Tabitha has grown up and I particularly liked the portrayal of Gunn, who is a very plausibly drawn cult leader with the ability to fool even the steadiest head.
Bailey drops just the right number of red herrings to keep the chase alive and folklore and myth are effectively blended with trickery to create a deliciously unsettling atmosphere.
The Prophet is, in short, spell-binding storytelling. It is layered with suspicion and thickly woven with an atmosphere so closely linked to the land you can feel every root and bud of it. It is the perfect read for spring, and midsummer, nights.
Martine’s Historia feature A charmed life: childbirth and superstition looks at one of the most fascinating aspects of the background to her novel.
She has written a number of features for Historia linked to the discoveries made while researching her books, the most recent of which have been set around and during the Second World War:
The Minister for Illusion: Goebbels and the German film industry
German reunification: still dividing opinion 30 years on
Concentration camps and the politics of memory
The ‘hidden’ Nazis of Argentina